Modern day Madurai retains its links with its past in a way few cities can – crowds, noise, traffic…all diminish before the 14 majestic gopurams (gateway towers) of the 2,500 year-old Meenakshi Amman Temple.
Pivotal to Madurai, the glorious Meenakshi Amman Temple (also known as Thirualavai) dominates the city’s skyline. Its presiding deity is Meenakshi, the beautiful and beatific goddess with the fish-shaped eyes, and her consort Sundareswarar (Siva).
The artistic wealth of the Temple is breathtaking – walls embellished with exquisite paintings, stunning sculptures depicting mythical scenes, massive, richly carved pillars, spacious corridors, beautiful shrines, and the piece de resistance, the absolutely magnificent Thousand Pillared Hall.
A superb example of Dravidian architecture, the vast Temple complex is laid out in concentric and quadrangular enclosures fortified by high walls that are pierced with resplendently sculpted multi-tiered gopurams.
Madurai is famed for its spectacular annual temple festivals that attract thousands and feature splendid processions and enactments of legends.
Its culinary delights are to be found in its standalone restaurants and messes. Especially iconic is the Jigarthanda – a heavenly concoction made of boiled milk, almond essence, sarsaparilla (China grass), rose syrup, and vanilla ice cream.
Mamallapuram was named after ‘Mamalla’, a title of King Narasimha Varman I, who, in the 7th century CE, established his capital here and created a renowned centre of sculpture and art. Here, over perhaps a 100 years, marvellous monuments were cut out of outcrops of hard grey granite. Cliff faces were transformed into chiselled animals, nature, divine beings, and people. Boulders were carved into giant temples.
Some 1,400 years on, Mamallapuram still harbours those exquisite ancient carved structures, every bit worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. For what remains shows the highest standards of human artistic achievement.
The Shore Temple is a spectacular sight on the very edge of the sea; the Five Rathas are a set of temples, each built from a single rock and covered with fabulous carvings; Arjuna’s Penance is considered the largest open-air bas-relief in the world – carved on the side of a cliff, the tableau is an elaborate and stunning depiction comprising around a hundred figures of animals, men, women, and divine beings; the beautiful Lighthouse here dates back to 1894.
Distinguished by its striking architecture and colossal monolithic sculptures, and made doubly atmospheric by its seaside location, Mamallapuram is also a lovely destination for a laidback beach holiday, with sun, sand, seafood, souvenirs, and great places to stay all year round.
The open-air Mamallapuram Dance Festival is held in December/January every year against the magnificent backdrop of Arjuna’s Penance here.
Thanjavur is synonymous with the three splendid Chola era temple complexes – Brihadeeswara, Darasuram, and Gangaikondacholapuram – devoted to Siva. All three are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Built by Rajaraja Chola I – the greatest of the Chola emperors – in the 11th century, the magnificent Brihadeeswara Temple or the Big Temple is the crowning glory of Chola temple art, architecture, and opulence. An engineering marvel, the Temple epitomises sheer grandeur and grace in its structure and size of its deities; an experience in the magnitude of divinity. Towering over Thanjavur, the Temple stands as a reminder of the Chola Empire’s military might and grand vision. It was also the first Dravidian temple to be built almost entirely of granite, and houses 252 Sivalingams (symbol of Siva).
The 35-acre 16th century Sivaganga Fort – modified by the Marathas who ruled here in the 17th century – encompasses the Temple complex, the Sivaganga Tank, the Schwartz Church (1799), the Royal Palace, and two museums.
To understand Tamil culture, and how, not only the Cholas but also the Marathas contributed to and nurtured the arts – music, dance, painting, architecture, and sculpture – visit Thanjavur.
13 km away is Thiruvaiyaru, the birthplace of the revered 18th century saint-composer Thyagaraja. At the annual (January) Thyagaraja Aradhana, a Carnatic music festival held at Thyagaraja’s Samadhi here, renowned musicians congregate to honour and sing his compositions.